Travertine Mart Loves

Travertine Oasis in the Desert

Travertine Terrace

By Patricia Leigh Brown

Photography by Russell MacMasters

At six foot three, with his Claude Montana leather jackets and signature black lambskin briefcase filled with sketches, the legendary designer Michael Taylor cast a huge shadow, and his imposing presence in the design world continues to this day.

Those seeking the quintessential Taylor—call it Michael Taylor 101—perhaps need look no further than a residence he designed beside a golf course in the Palm Springs area, where his singular approach to light, color, scale, natural materials and outsize California living were on vibrant and voluptuous display.

A word on white on white, a phenomenon for which the designer, who died in 1986 at the age of 59, is justly famous. While it’s true that he loved a pale, milky white—a tone he believed most efficiently captured natural light—white for Taylor was a kind of canvas for the application of color, one that might prevent the interior design equivalent of an overdose. White allowed him to judiciously drop in luscious colors of the edible variety—apricots, cantaloupes, lemons, limes, peaches, aubergines—usually in the form of handwoven-silk pillows that were without fail custom-dyed and placed strategically on white upholstery.


His rooms were like rests between measures in a piece of music. “Michael created a new language,” says Paul Weaver, who founded Michael Taylor Designs with Taylor in 1985. “This house was a statement of his genius.”

The residence, pre-Taylor, was a rather undistinguished ranch house that had the advantage of being surrounded by walls for privacy. The designer’s painterly eye immediately gravitated to the question of light—how to make rooms flow into one another and to the outdoors while elegantly filtering the desert sun. He raised ceilings, pushed out walls and added skylights. But his coup de grâce was typically stunning: a series of patterned Chinese-style floor-to-ceiling ash window screens hand-glazed to resemble driftwood.

The screens infused the residence with subtle patterns of light and were inspired by originals that Taylor had purchased for his own dining room in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco. He procured them from the estate of Adrian, the MGM costume designer who was married to the actress Janet Gaynor. The magic of a screen, of course, is that it allows in light but provides privacy, creating a spatial division that is somehow illusional.

“Michael loved to play with light,” recalls designer Suzanne Tucker, who was his design assistant in the early 1980s. “He was not one for fussy curtains.”

Taylor had an unerring sense of quality, as might be expected from someone who spent his childhood collecting porcelain (let other boys amass baseball cards). In travertine, he found a material that embodied two of his deepest passions: nature and luxury. Known as the creator of the California Look, Taylor designed travertine floors that spilled out from the residence onto the terrace and down to the pool. The approach reflected his belief that glamour—in this case, in a wildly romantic terrace worthy of Fred and Ginger—was much too important to be confined to the indoors.

Inside, much of the furniture, too, was travertine, including the 10-foot-long, nine-inch-thick dining table and the low and side tables, their classical bull-nose beveling softening the stone’s hard edges. Even the lamps were made of travertine. (The installation of thousands of pounds of travertine craned and dollied into place was biblical.)

“Michael didn’t pull any punches,” observes the photographer Russell MacMasters, a close friend. “When he said travertine, he meant travertine.”

In his eulogy for Taylor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, MacMasters spoke about the designer’s appreciation of nature, manifested in his affinity not only for travertine but also for slate, rocks, fossils, shells, geodes and the tree-stump furniture introduced to him by his onetime collaborator Mimi London, and big living plants and trees in oversize pots that he felt brought character and life to rooms.

If nature abhors a vacuum, Michael Taylor was comfortable with one, believing, as he once wrote, that “the most beautiful rooms are those that retain a feeling of not being quite finished”—where there still was room for a painting on the wall or a chair in the corner. Completed perfection felt static and decadent to him, while lacunae kept a room feeling “alive, young and growing,” he said. Thus, the house’s expansive white fireplace wall of textured slump-stone bricks in the living room, a “negative space” that provided visual breathing room for patterns of light to dance with shifts in the sun.

He was a master of scale and a proponent of bountiful upholstery (“He felt large furniture made women look more delicate,” Tucker explains). His influences ranged from the white rooms of Syrie Maugham in the 1920s to the simplicity and minimalism of Coco Chanel’s salon on Paris’s rue Cambron. Every winter he would spend a month at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki, communing with the interiors of his mentor Frances Elkins, whose maxim, “When in doubt, take it out!” he liberally applied.


But the designer’s biggest inspiration may have been his clients, with whom, as MacMasters points out, “there was always a love affair. He was fiercely protective of their interests.”

Taylor would sketch at night in bed on a big tray, the phone cradled on his shoulder, his end of the conversations going something like this: “Are you in your lovely canopy bed? There’s a beautiful pair of chairs I want to show you!” The next morning he would arrive at a client meeting with dozens of fresh sketches.

The timelessness of Michael Taylor’s vision and his devotion to his craft are expressed by the house’s current resident, who, though she never met him, has found herself over the course of a decade restoring the original Italian raw-silk melon, lime green and orange pillows there. She describes her window screens as “beautiful, to die for, drop-dead” and confesses that she is extremely reluctant to make changes, even now.

“The integrity of the design was so pure,” she says of the masterpiece she inhabits. “You can’t replace the quality of Michael Taylor.”

(via Architectural Digest)

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